Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pages, 2016
Humankind is often blind to irony, but history is not. I was just pages from finishing Adam Hochschild’s searing look at the Spanish Civil War when I came upon his comment that there was but a single living survivor of the Lincoln Brigade–those 2,800 Americans who went to Spain to try to preserve the Spanish Republic. It was no small feat to be a survivor—better than a third of those idealistic black and white young men (and a handful of women) died in the conflict, a higher casualty rate than any other group. The very morning (March 6) I read Hochschild’s line, the Boston Globe ran the obituary of that last survivor, 100-year-old Delmer Berg.
We owe Mr. Hochschild a debt for making sure that we don’t forget the causes and motives that animated individuals such as Mr. Berg, one the many for whom the Spanish conflict the “the defining experience of their lives.” (1%) Hochschild is too learned to add his voice to the legions that romanticize the Lincolns. Berg, like the book’s Aristotelian tragic hero Bob Merriman, was a devoted communist. Hochschild does a superb job of explaining why individuals like Merriman, the dashing UCal economics professor who commanded the Lincoln Brigade, were drawn to the communist Popular Front. Call it a combination of realism and idealism. In the midst of the Great Depression it wasn’t hard to imagine that capitalism had failed or that Soviet-style communism–less than two decades old–might be a better form of society. Berg and Merriman heroically cast their lot with comrades in the Spanish Republic, but their erstwhile patrons in Moscow proved unworthy of their affection. Although Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was the only nation to sell weapons to the Spanish Republic, it sent them junk, exacted a high toll, and–like the proverbial fair-weather friend–was never there when most needed. Moreover, his agents in Spain were often more concerned with ferreting out Trotskyites than Nationalists. Nor did they shy from using foreign volunteers as cannon fodder; Bob Merriman died on precisely such a fool’s errand. In 1949, six authors wrote the epitaph of communism and called it The God that Failed; tellingly, five of them were reporters during the Spanish Civil War.
Hochschild’s unique twist to the story is to devote much of his attention to the reporters who covered the war, including such luminaries as Jay Allen, Herbert Matthews, Ernest Hemingway, George Steer, George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Frances Davis, Virginia Cowles, and future communist apostates Louis Fischer, André Gide, and Arthur Koestler. There are juicy tidbits, such as the way Cowles and Gellhorn used prevailing sexism to their advantage, how some editors kowtowed to pressure from the Catholic Church to whitewash Franco’s crimes, how a handful such as Herbert Knickerbocker became propagandists for the Nationalists, and details suggesting that Hemingway was precisely the pompous, arrogant egoists his detractors claimed. Mostly, though, Hochschild views the journalists in a positive light. If you want to get a grasp on Franco’s barbarism, read Jay Allen’s dispatches on the massacre of Badajoz; if you want to understand Picasso’s Guernica, read George Steer’s account of its destruction.
There is a lot of heroism in Hochschild’s account, but also villains galore. If communism was a failed god, one wonders what that makes Pope Pius XI, who worshipped at a fascist altar. If there is a hell, Texaco chief Torkild Rieber is suffering from its fires—he provided practically free oil for Hitler’s Luftwaffe, which honed its skills in Spain. Indeed, one could imagine a host of American policymakers sweltering from the glow of Rieber’s flames—the isolationists and non-interventionists who placed anti-communist zealotry and/or insistence upon neutrality above world security. (Franklin Roosevelt bears some blame as well.) Moreover, as unworthy as communism proved to be, fascism was far worse. Scale is the only thing that prevents Franco from rising to the top tier of 20th century monsters.
Hochschild is a gifted writer whose time as a writer-in-residence at the University of Massachusetts Amherst made me yearn for this book before it was anywhere near completion. His writing is refreshing because he rekindles a skill sadly lacking in a lot of historical writing: the ability to tell a good story. A tale well told informs readers far more than reams of leaden prose, arcane analyses, and esoterica. Nor does Hochschild hide behind academia’s often-faux objectivity. Although he acknowledges that communism was a false god, he admits he might have embraced that faith back then. He ultimately agrees with journalist Herbert Matthews, whose reporting on Spain was urgent and openly pro-Republic partisan. Matthews (and Hochschild) viewed the Spanish Civil War as a moral test for those who reflexively dismiss questions of whether there are times in which proactive interventionism is necessary. Hochschild has written a backdoor “what if?” history. Western democracies dithered, but Hitler and Mussolini did not; they supplied Franco with pilots, soldiers, and state-of-the-art military materiel. What if, Hochschild speculates, they had been stopped in the Basque country hillsides? All counterfactual history is suspect, Hochschild’s included, but one must ponder whether it’s better to worship false gods or submit to real demons.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst